Tuesday, June 03, 2014

`One Does Not Know What Is in One's Own Head'

A reader writes that he won’t write without readers. Good luck. From the looks of his prose, we won’t be hearing from him any time soon, but this question of audience still vexes. I try to balance what I know and how I write with what might be of interest to an intelligent, book-minded, non-academic reader. The “ideal reader” is a phantom. The writer who says he writes exclusively to please himself is a solipsist, and one who writes exclusively to please others is a whore. Neither is worth reading. I won’t pander just to pack the house, nor will I resort to fashionable chatter. The quantity of readers matters less than their quality. It’s a variation of what retailers call “niche marketing.” The presumption to write calls for one to mingle arrogance with humility. F.L. Lucas puts it tartly in the Jan. 25 entry in Journal Under the Terror, 1938 (1939): 

“I should dread the slow demoralization of all I wrote, if I once allowed myself seriously to sacrifice my likings in literature to the aim of being liked. No Siren, says Sir Henry Taylor somewhere, ever charmed a listener’s ear so much as a listener’s ear charms the soul of the Siren. Very true. God knows what men may not do for a hearing.” 

His Journal, written in diary form, is a chronicle of war’s inevitability. Lucas was a veteran of the Great War. He volunteered in October 1914 and served in France in 1915-17 as a lieutenant in the 7th Battalion in the Royal West Kent Regiment. He was at the Somme starting in August 1915 and was wounded by shrapnel in May 1916. He returned to the front in January 1917 and was gassed on March 4. In all, Lucas was hospitalized for seventeen months. He finished the war in the Intelligence Corps, questioning German prisoners. He writes: 

“But above all I think I write , not so much for popularity (I am little likely ever to have it) as for `les âmes amies.’ Life and reading have brought me curious and amusing things that it is natural to wish to share. And one does not know what is in one’s own head (or knows it only untidily), until one has put it down on paper. `Writing makes an exact man.’” 

Lucas is a writer whose company we come to enjoy. As our surrogate in the terrible year of 1938, the year of the Anschluss, Munich and Kristallnacht, we come to trust his judgments. He is intelligent, orderly, learned and indulgent of human failings if not of mendacity and cant. In this, he is reminiscent of Dr. Johnson. We know where his world is headed, all the difficult decisions that ought to have been made, and we follow his  unhappy chronicle.  Neville Chamberlain, the prime minister, delivered his best-remembered words on Sept. 30, 1938, after returning to London from his third and final meeting with Hitler: “My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.” The Nazi occupation of the Sudetenland began the following day, and Chamberlain’s name became shorthand for appeasement and fatuous credulity. Here is Lucas writing in his journal on Sept. 30: 

“Even if what he did were the right thing to do, this was not the way to do it... The surrender might have been necessary: the cant was not. Any statesman with a sense of honour would at least have stilled that hysterical cheering and said: My friends, for the present, we are out of danger. But remember that others, who trusted in us, are not. This is a day for relief, perhaps; but for sorrow also; for shame, not for revelling. But this Chamberlain comes home beaming as fatuously as some country-cousin whom a couple of card-sharpers in the train have just allowed to win sixpence, to encourage him.” 

Later in the Jan. 25 entry, Lucas writes: “A pen can be like a dowser’s twig, for discovering things hidden in one’s own mind.” Louis MacNeice writes in Section VII of Autumn Journal (1939), his long poem set in the fall of 1938: 

“. . . Hitler yells on the wireless,
               The night is damp and still
And I hear dull blows on wood outside my window;
               They are cutting down the trees on Primrose Hill.
The wood is white like the roast flesh of chicken,
               Each tree falling like a closing fan;
No more looking at the view from seats beneath the branches,
               Everything is going to plan.
They want the crest of this hill for anti-aircraft,
               The guns will take the view
And searchlights probe the heavens for bacilli
               With narrow wands of blue.”

1 comment:

Edward Bauer said...

I haven't commented in a while, but thank you once again for this blog, which I visit daily and sometimes more than once. I am reading Style and Search for Good Sense and having a great time. My appetite is whetted now for the other Lucas books. Good reading and keep up the great work.